Being Black and White is Not Always So Black and White

In a perfect world—you know the one I mean: free from homophobia, racism, sexism and all the other -isms—mom and dad / mom and mom / dad and dad could be of different races and nobody would notice or care.

We could make multiracial babies and the world would go on as if nothing significant just happened.

Although there are obvious physical differences between people of different races, at a molecular level, we’re all ostensibly the same. The actual differences between us—the ones people have been rushing to point out for centuries—are the result of the environments in which we live and our ability to adapt to those environments. Contrary to the popular belief that has prevailed for as long as people have been using race to divide and conquer, genetically the differences between us all are so minute, there’s no reason to even have the discussion.

Is race a social construct? Yes … and no.

People, societies and governments have historically used race to bolster their superiority, disregard, subjugate, enslave, segregate, and justify colonization and institutionalization, and so in this context it is definitely a social construct. Unfortunately the reality is, we’re not at a point as a people to move forward and declare ourselves all part of one race—the human race.

For those who continually claim racism is dead and that race is a social construct, my response is always the same. Take a look around you. Leaving aside (as if we could) the cop (and cop wannabe) on people of color (PoC) killings of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Amadou Dialo, etc. infinitum, there are the deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Vincent Venezuela, Melissa Ventura and at least five more whose stories didn’t make social media.

Although it’s difficult for me to grasp how anyone can ignore racism exists, people continually do. I am told that things aren’t as bad as they used to be. When I ask, "when?" “You know, when there were slaves,” which I suppose is meant to imply that racism died the day slavery ended. And I suppose the Civil War, the lynchings, NAACP, which was founded in 1909 in response to the lynchings, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panther Party, myriad race riots (“Rodney King,” Watts, Ferguson, Baltimore, 1908’s, just to name a tiny handful) since the turn of the previous century and the Black Lives Matter movement are / were just social gatherings. So I am to believe Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about his dream because his children’s dolls weren’t getting along and when Malcolm X used the now famous “By any means necessary” in a speech in West Africa, he was referring to feeding his chocolate addiction.

Yeah, and I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you.

On the flip side there are people who tell me they’re colorblind. I just roll my eyes. Really? You don’t see the various colors in nature, know the difference between your red and purple socks and / or know the precise moment that first strand of grey showed up on your head?

“You know what I mean!” They retort.

“No, I can’t say that I do.”

And while other people are discriminated against in the U.S. (the LGBTQ, Mexicans and Muslims immediately come to mind), I usually speak to the Black experience because of the way I was raised to self-identify. It’s not my intention to minimize the marginalization of all who are discriminated against.

I am often accused of playing the race card, having a chip on my shoulder, “doing it again” and blowing things way out of proportion. I am the product of my upbringing. There’s nothing profound in that statement … we all are. My (late) mother was Black and Japanese and my (late) father was German, Dutch and Irish. They met over the telephone, so my father had no idea my mother was Black.

Initially their conversations were strictly professional. My mother was a photojournalist and my father represented a well-known photographer. My mother was working with my father to create a write-up about my father’s client. It wouldn’t be long before their conversations turned a little personal, these things happen. Before long my father realized he was falling in love with my mother. Reluctantly she was doing the same. She knew he was White, which is why I say reluctantly.

My mother wasn’t racist but she knew the trouble an interracial relation would bring.

It was quite a shock for my father to meet my mother and learn that she was Black. He nearly fell over himself and not for the reasons you might imagine. They met in the late 1950s when Black men didn’t hold positions like the one my mother had (with a prestigious company), so to know a woman of color was in this position was pretty shocking. In that moment they met my father knew immediately he would need to make a choice between his family and my mother. You see his father hated everyone who wasn’t White and Catholic—Jews, Asians and Blacks topped the list.

My father was in an impossible situation: follow his heart, which meant one that would be filled with drama and discrimination or take the easy way out, and miss out having my mother as his wife and me as his daughter.

My parents were married in 1960 in New York State (one of a handful states where marriage between two different races was legal), seven years ahead of the Supreme Court landmark decision to legalize interracial marriage nationwide. Although their marriage was legal, they faced an excruciating amount of discrimination. For a White man to marry anyone other than a White woman was such a threat to the White power base that not only did my mother face racism, the backlash extended to my father.

 

My parents and brothers before I was born, when we lived in Nigeria: circa 1965.

My parents and brothers before I was born, when we lived in Nigeria: circa 1965.

As a White man he knew he represented the sex and race with power and while he could have easily had her become absorbed into his world, follow in his lead, so to speak, instead he chose to take up her fight—the fight of all people of color—both in the U.S. and abroad when we lived in Nigeria following their independence from England. When she hurt, he hurt more. When someone was discriminatory against her, they had to deal with him. Things were dramatic and oftentimes ugly enough when it was just the two of them but when they had kids, oh boy did things turn all kinds of ugly.

My father’s reaction—more so than my mother’s—was to raise their three kids to identify as Black. Sure we acknowledged that we are Black, Japanese and White … at home, but when we left the comfort of our home, we faced the world as three Black kids (my two older brothers and me).

He taught us to recognize both overt and subtle forms of racism. He drilled into our heads that whether people know from looking at us that we’re Black (for me in particular), as soon as they see our mother there would be no doubt in their minds we are and so we best be prepared for everything that will come down the pike, including, but from limited to the N word. Although I can count on only a few fingers how many times I have been called it, I have had to deal with a different sort of racism … from both Whites and Blacks.

We knew our history well—both Black and White. I can’t say we knew as much of the Japanese (I explain in detail why in this blog), but we were prepared when White people tried to “skool” us about the brutal history of being Black in the Americas or when Black people tried to tell us because we were “only” one-quarter Black, we weren’t really Black. And yes, we knew our White American history well because the school system makes certain this happens, while it purposefully glosses over everything from the brutalization of people of color (native Americans being the first) to the accomplishments we’ve made.

Despite race being something that’s on my mind constantly, despite being faced with both acceptance and rejection from all sides and despite the fact that for a multiracial person race is fluid and I can meander freely between my three races, my self confidence is rock solid. I am still very much a work in progress—the result of coming out as multiracial a year ago—but I have a level of self confidence that I attribute to my parents.

Yum Yum and me July 7